Intangible Economies: Preface
The current economic crisis has now lasted for almost half a decade: a slightly surprising development, given that capitalism’s paradigmatic push toward growth and expansion induces the sort of optimism that seems to manufacture its own factual realities. Despite the prognostications of doomsayers in 2008, deep in our hearts we seemed to believe that this crisis, too, would blow over in just a few months.
It is the persistence of the current crisis that has enabled a more thorough and sustained discussion of terms such as value, credit, debt, and exchange. In fact, it may have permitted a rethinking of these terms’ signification, allowing older texts to be reconsidered in a contemporary context and begging the question: When does a crisis become “the new normal,” something not to be overcome, but rather to be inhabited as a new set of paradigms?
Some of the effects of the crisis seemed to not fully unfold until at least two years after its 2007/08 onset. Within the art world and the broader cultural sector, the collapse of the art market, drastic funding cuts, and a difficult job market severely impacted cultural producers—the artistic precariat—that commonly eke out a living and a practice based on a combination of sales, stipends, and casual jobs.
It is against this material background that this book emerged—a context that continues to lend the topic urgency. However, rather than analyze art market dynamics and governmental funding policies (thereby perpetuating the prevalent tendency to debate economic concerns as fiscal phenomena), this anthology aims to articulate the amorphous intersection of affect and economy as an existential paradigm that is axiomatic to any society and, by extension, also represents the foundational source of creative production.
The essays in this volume regard economy as a system in which what we call “exchange” is actually a dialectical operation that creates representation. The abstract and abstracting quality of value becomes a fulcrum in this constellation, both in its functional role in a capitalist economy and in its relevance to an ethics. While affect is to be recognized as both a generator and a consequence of economic exchanges, it is, conversely, also the modality of those exchanges that structure affect, resulting in the topographies of the sensible that underpin everyday life.
The present book started out as a series of casual conversations among an affective network—a group of friends and colleagues. These dialogues initially occurred in the course of investigations occasioned by my own art practice, and it was the inspiring nature of these conversations that gave rise to the idea to deepen and formalize the discussions while retaining their open and highly speculative character. The project was devised in several stages, first allowing contributors to put forward their theses, to then present and test their ideas with a readership and in front of a live audience, and to finally articulate them for this book. Thus, seven of the invited artists, curators, and writers contributed essays to Fillip magazine;1 in the fall of 2011, a three-day conference was held in Vancouver where (often revised) versions of these papers were presented in dialogue with each other and the audience. Here, the openness of the live format was mobilized by several presenters, offering performative presentations or supporting their ideas with comprehensive image-essays that performed a discourse in their own right.
This anthology begins with a text by Melanie Gilligan. In setting out the tenets of her video work The Common Sense (2012) Gilligan simultaneously maps out key aspects that also define this book’s scope, closely examining the particular ways in which affect, feeling, and emotion animate capitalist structures. Evoking an economy of representation, Hadley+Maxwell’s theatrical script challenges models of the artist as compromised mediator between an imaginary and a shared reality. My conversation with Olaf Nicolai explores the thesis that a particular economic system will create its own economy of signs, and therefore necessarily must produce particular forms of cultural expression. Using the poetically named “letters of indulgence” dispensed by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages as his point of departure, Jan Verwoert speculates on an economy of faith fuelled by a potent mix of debt and redemption as embodied in a contract with a higher power. Monika Szewzcyk’s essay is a meditation on the potential agency of the blank as a space that denies representa- tion, and by extension, valuation. Discussing works by N.E. Thing Co. and Cildo Meireles that, in turn, engage the iconography and material form of paper money, Juan A. Gaitán reflects on the inextricable historical linkage between the circulation of imagery and national wealth manifest in land and natural resources. The potlatch has been heavily romanticized and is conjured regularly as a paragon of an alternative economic paradigm based on generosity; in her essay, Candice Hopkins dismantles this myth of cultural purity and innocence by incisively demonstrating that as a—by no means dead—tradition, the potlatch is subject to, and agent in, a process of mimicry and exchange that while inf(l)ected by capitalist forces, seems nevertheless able to project a third space. Patricia Reed’s concluding essay positions ethics as based on a surplus, its politicity2 mobilized by what cannot be accounted for in current spheres of normativity.
Intangible Economies continues the trajectories of two previous projects that adopted a similar format: Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism (published in 2010 in the same Folio series as the present volume)3 and Vancouver Art & Economies (2007),4 which was closely modelled on the 1991 publication Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art.5 While deploying diverse approaches, all of these projects attempt to situate the question of practice against the changing parameters that condition its modality, be they economic, institutional, or academic. Intangible Economies departs from this lineage in that it considers the question of economy primarily from the perspective of what animates individual production in ways that often don’t announce themselves as relating explicitly to questions of economy.
All of the projects I name above involved conferences or lecture series that culminated in books and, just like Intangible Economies, all of these projects owe much of their success to the Vancouver audiences that populated the respective conferences and talks. This public rigorously critiqued, argued, and submitted the positions advanced by the invited contributors to intense scrutiny, a gesture that is in itself a generous investment. Exemplary of these discussions, this volume also contains a transcript of the respondent session led by Clint Burnham at the Intangible Economies forum in Vancouver.
Two of the antecedent conference and publication projects were produced either exclusively by Artspeak (Vancouver Art & Economies) or in association with Fillip (Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism). The Intangible Economies forum, in turn, would not have been possible without the support of this vital collaborator, and I extend a special thanks to Melanie O’Brian, who committed to co-presenting Intangible Economies during her tenure as Director/Curator of Artspeak. My thanks goes also to current Artspeak Director Kim Nguyen and Associate Director Peter Gazendam.
Of course, nothing at all would have been possible without the contributors assembled within this book—Juan A. Gaitán, Melanie Gilligan, Hadley+Maxwell, Candice Hopkins, Olaf Nicolai, Patricia Reed, Monika Szewczyk, and Jan Verwoert. Thanks are also due to the respondents during the forum, Clint Burnham and Marina Roy.
The project would also not have been possible without the indefatigable perseverance of the Fillip team: first and foremost Jeff Khonsary, and editors Kristina Lee Podesva, Kate Steinmann, Magnolia Pauker, and Jaclyn Arndt. Copious thanks also go to Colin Griffiths, Jonathan Middleton, and the numerous volunteers that contributed their generosity and skills.
The project was made possible with the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts through its Visual Arts Projects Program, and the City of Vancouver. The participation of Olaf Nicolai was in part made possible through the Goethe Satellite Vancouver Series. Jane Irwin and Ross Hill made an incredible contribution to the project by providing the GreyChurch Collection & Project Space as the setting for the project’s forum. Fillip would like to also acknowledge the ongoing support received from the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Columbia Arts Council, the City of Vancouver, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
- Fillip 13 (Spring 2011): Candice Hopkins and Jan Verwoert; Fillip 14 (Summer 2011): Hadley+Maxwell and Monika Szewczyk; Fillip 15 (Fall 2011): Juan A. Gaitán and Olaf Nicolai (interview); Fillip 16 (Spring 2012): Melanie Gilligan and Olaf Nicolai (artist’s project).
- I was introduced to this term by Patricia Reed’s writing. She describes it thus: “A neologism in English, ‘politicity’ is a translation of the French politicité, indicating the capacity to be political.”
- Jeff Khonsary and Melanie O’Brian, eds., Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism (Vancouver: Fillip Editions and Artspeak, 2010).
- Melanie O’Brian, ed., Vancouver Art & Economies (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press and Artspeak, 2007).
- Stan Douglas, ed., Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art (Vancouver: Talon Books and Or Gallery, 2011).
About the Author
Antonia Hirsch is an artist based in Berlin and Vancouver. She is Associate Editor at Fillip.